New Regional Panel Leader Sides with Cecil County Mayors, Zang to Represent Towns; Bankrupt Council Gets New $, New Leader
The Upper Shore Regional Council, which was out of business and out of money during the tenure of Cecil County Commissioner James Mullin (R-1) as its chairman, has new leadership, new money in the bank and a new representative of Cecil County towns.
The new chairman of the Council, which serves as a tri-county planning and resource agency for Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, is William Pickrum, who also heads the Kent County Board of Commissioners.
And in one of his first official acts, he said Tuesday that he would honor the request of Cecil County’s eight town mayors to rescind a controversial appointment of a Perryville town councilman to the regional panel and instead seat Joseph Zang, the mayor of Cecilton, who was chosen by the mayors as their representative.
“It’s in the bylaws” that the mayors of each county select their representative to the regional council, said Pickrum, speaking via speakerphone at a meeting of the council’s executive board in Chestertown. If the Cecil County mayors want Zang as their representative, “that works,” he said.
During the January 4-6 winter convention of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) at a resort in Cambridge, a meeting of the USRC was convened by State Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36). County Commissioners from the three counties attended but there was no advance notice to the public or local mayors. At that meeting, Pipkin advanced and won approval of the installation of a political ally, Michael A. Dawson, a first-term Perryville town commissioner, as the representative of Cecil County towns to the USRC. (Dawson has been a member of the Smipkin political machine’s slate of candidates, aligned with Pipkin and Del. Michael Smigiel, R-36.)
That move shocked Cecil County’s mayors, who signed a letter challenging the action and asserting their choice of Mayor Zang as their selection, as provided by state law and the USRC bylaws.
[SEE previous Cecil Times report here:
After Tuesday’s USRC board meeting, Zang told Cecil Times he welcomed Pickrum’s remarks and looked forward to working with the regional panel. “I’m sure it eventually would have come around” to seating the mayors’ candidate, he said, but he added he was pleased that the matter was resolved so quickly after the new chairman took over.
There were other signs Tuesday that the USRC will be operating in a more open, accountable fashion under its new leadership. The group’s new executive director, Doris Mason, prepared a detailed agenda for the meeting, discussed plans to update the group’s website that has not been changed in several years, detailed her “outreach” efforts in the less than one month she has been on the job, and discussed her hope to expand the USRC’s attention to “human services” needs in the rural region.
It was a sharp contrast to the tone of the USRC under its previous executive director, John A. Dillman, who was forced to give up his job last June when the USRC ran out of money. The panel has been defunct, homeless and leaderless and the state Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) had refused to fund the panel in the current fiscal year due to its “organizational issues.” USRC was the only one of the state’s five regional councils that has had such organizational and financial problems.
However, after a series of behind-the-scenes meetings and discussion, DBED relented in late December and recently sent $25,000 to the USRC’s depleted bank account. Kent and Queen Anne’s counties have each ponied up $12,000 and Mullin said that Cecil County’s $12,000 contribution is “on the way.” Each county pays $12,000 a year for USRC operations, although they will only be getting six months of bang for their bucks due to USRC’s hiatus for the first half of the fiscal year.
Alex Rasin, a Kent County commissioner and the USRC’s treasurer, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the budget for the rest of the fiscal year will have to be “crafted down” and “basically sliced in half.” Mason said the state had promised to send another $25,000 at the end of March.
So that would leave a total budget of $86,000 to carry the group through the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends on June 30. Much of that will go to pay Mason, whose salary was not disclosed; but in the search process for a new executive director, the panel had budgeted up to $60,000 a year.
Mason holds a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland. She has 25 years of experience working for the state of Maryland with corrections, human services and management positions. Her most recent job was as the “labor exchange administrator” for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation at the Talbot County Career Center.
The USRC is officially homeless, having given up its office space at the Visitors’ Center in Chestertown when its money ran out. But USRC leaders hope to re-negotiate with town officials to rent space again.
Another sign of changing times at the USRC was the practical approach taken by the Kent County members to a “telemedicine” agenda that has been pushed for several years by Dillman and Pipkin, who serves on the panel’s board and has dominated agendas in the past.
Mullin, who attended Tuesday’s meeting in person along with Cecil County Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4), has spoken in the past of creating warehouse-type facilities with storage of “PDF documents” for medical records as an economic development project.
But Pickrum and Rasin took a more practical approach, reflecting the concerns of their community with changes at the Chestertown hospital—which recently announced it will end obstetrics and pediatrics services—as the local hospitals affiliated with the University of Maryland seek to consolidate and co-ordinate services in Kent and Talbot counties.
“It’s the doctors’ groups that will tell them (doctors and hospitals) how to do it, and we’d be the last group” to determine how telemedicine might benefit local rural areas, Rasin said. “We need to make the equipment available,” he added, and let the medical professionals decide how to take advantage of new telecommunications technology, such as remote reading of X-rays and monitoring of local intensive care units.
Another USRC priority, advanced by Mullin and Broomell, is support for a new grain barge facility on a privately-owned maritime property in Chesapeake City. Rasin inquired, “Did we study that?” Broomell said that the Cecil Land Trust, headed by her longtime political ally Bill Kilby, did a study that “shows it’s viable.”
However, Pickrum cautioned, “We have to recognize the opposition of the poultry industry” to such a facility that could facilitate export of grain while poultry and other producers fear that the status of Delmarva as a “grain deficient area” could be made worse by such a facility.
A meeting of the full USRC is scheduled for March 29 at 1.30 p.m. in Chestertown. Even that simple task—scheduling a meeting in advance and announcing it in public—is a change in the panel’s usual operations. Mason said she would send out press releases and “outreach” information to encourage public participation.